Everyone has their favorite form of cardio. Two of the most popular are rowing and running. Running has always been a popular way to exercise, and rowing has spiked in use since the rise of CrossFit.
But when it comes to rowing vs. running, which is a more effective workout?
Ultimately, both will burn calories, may help you lose weight, and boost your cardiovascular health. But each has pros and cons…
Does one come out on top? Let’s find out.
Rowing vs. Running: Key Differences
While both exercises are excellent choices, they do have some very specific differences, which could be the deciding factor when picking the right one for you. Let’s compare.
All forms of cardio affect your cardiovascular fitness. But which of these two has the stronger effect?
Rowing is a full-body workout that gets the heart pumping hard. One of the best things about rowing as an activity is that you’ve got resistance to work against, adding to the intensity of the workout.
The more intense your workout, the harder your heart will beat. And the harder your heart works, the stronger your cardiovascular system gets.
That being said, you can get an excellent cardiovascular workout on the rowing machine, but you can also slow it down and do moderate workouts to avoid overtraining.
Varying the resistance and the speed of your rowing experience allows you to work within your target heart rate zones to reach your goals.
Running is mainly a lower-body activity. And while it doesn’t activate as much of the body as rowing, it’s still fairly effective for getting your heart going harder and faster.
Where you run makes a difference in workout intensity. Running on a track or treadmill is typically more predictable and easier. However, running on uneven or changing terrain gives you a better workout.
Also, the faster and longer you run, the more cardiovascular workout you’ll get. You can also vary your pace to work within heart rate zones, although it’s a little less easy to do than it is with rowing.
The full-body nature of rowing puts it slightly ahead of running in terms of boosting cardiovascular strength and endurance. You can go more intensely and cater your workouts to heart rate zones a bit easier than you can with running.
That’s not to say that running isn’t good for building cardiovascular strength—it definitely is, but falls a touch behind rowing.
Both sports have the potential to build muscle; however, the difference comes in when looking at where the muscle is built.
Rowing engages a whole lot of muscles. The legs take on a lot of work, especially the quads. The shoulders, back, and arms also get some great engagement, and keeping the core tight to do it with proper form is essential.
When done right, rowing can build muscle in the legs, the back, the shoulders, and the arms. You can add resistance more easily than you can to running, making it a more progressive exercise in terms of muscle challenge and growth.
Running targets the leg muscles: the quads, hamstrings, calves, and glutes. If you stick to flat ground, you won’t see much muscle growth. But if you add hills into your workout, you’re targeting those leg muscles to help them to grow faster.
Keeping your core tight is also important when it comes to proper form. However, the upper body doesn’t get much activation when running, making it less effective overall than rowing.
Running builds great leg muscle, especially if you do a bit of hill training. But rowing takes the cake.
Not only does it build muscle in both the upper and lower body, but there’s room to continue challenging the muscles with more resistance as you improve and get used to the level you’re on.
Calorie burn can be tricky because it depends on multiple factors. The more intensely you exercise, the more calories you’ll likely burn. The heavier you are, the more calories you’ll burn.
According to Harvard Health, here’s what three differently-sized people would burn in a 30-minute session of vigorous rowing:
- 125-lb person: 255 calories
- 155-lb person: 369 calories
- 185-lb person: 440 calories
That’s a pretty decent calorie burn. Keep in mind that you can burn more calories by rowing for longer, faster, and adding more resistance to it.
Here’s the equivalent calorie burn that three people would experience in 30 minutes of running at 5 miles per hour (12-minute mile):
- 125-lb person: 240 calories
- 155-lb person: 288 calories
- 185-lb person: 346 calories
While the calorie burn starts quite similar, it diminishes as the runner gets heavier. This may be due to the high-impact nature of running, or perhaps the inability to add resistance to the workout.
Technically, the two are nearly identical. It mostly comes down to your intensity, but rowing just edges out running thanks to its ability to increase calorie burn by upping the resistance.
Whether you join a gym or invest in exercise equipment for your home, there’s a cost associated with each form of cardio.
Let’s assume you plan on working out from home, as a gym contract would allow you access to both a rowing machine and a treadmill for a single fee.
A rowing machine is a sizeable investment. Not only is the initial cost quite a lot, but you’ll need to maintain it and possibly replace parts at some point. Some rowing machines feature online classes, which could add an extra cost.
You can run pretty much anywhere with a pair of running shoes appropriate for your feet and comfortable, chafe-free running clothes.
Compared to a rowing machine, this is a small investment. There’s no need to spend money on a treadmill, although if you want one, you can typically find a decent treadmill for a more affordable price than a decent rowing machine.
Short-term and long-term running is the more affordable choice. While you’ll need to replace shoes and clothes, there’s no need to invest in a machine.
Rowing, on the other hand, requires a rowing machine, unless you want to row in a kayak or boat on the water. But even so, there’s a bit more of an investment there than there is with running.
Which is Better for Runners?
If you’re a runner, we know your heart is set on running. We’re not suggesting that you drop running and take up rowing—but rowing could be a valuable cross-training activity.
Benefits of Rowing for Runners
One of the greatest things about rowing is that it’s very low-impact. You can get a spectacular cardiovascular workout with a fraction of the impact on the joints you’d get during running.
Incorporating rowing once or twice a week as cross-training gives your joints a break but ensures you’re still getting a good workout. This can go a long way towards reducing the chance of getting injured.
There’s also the bonus of strengthening the upper body muscles, which running doesn’t do. This not only builds your overall strength, but can prevent an out-of-proportion body with muscular legs and a weaker upper body.
If you happen to be injured and can’t run, rowing could be a viable option to maintain your fitness without aggravating existing running injuries.
The biggest potential downside to rowing is getting your form right takes a bit of focused practice. It’s easy for beginners to get wrong, which can lead to injury and ruin your idea of getting some extra exercise and lowering your chance of injury.
When you get your form right, it doesn’t translate directly to boosting your running performance, in comparison to cross-training activities like cycling, other than strengthening your cardiovascular system.
If you’re looking for an effective form of cross-training to add to your training routine, rowing is great. It’s typically an acquired taste and may take some time to get the hang of, but it’s an excellent choice to build strength and cardio.
The low-impact nature of rowing gives it a big thumbs-up. Incorporating it into your schedule will give your joints a welcome break while strengthening your leg muscles at the same time.
If you’re looking for something you can do from home, it might be a tough call for those on a budget. But if you’re already a gym member and here’s a rowing machine at your disposal, we highly recommend trying it.